A New Year

Bolinas Alter

The end of one story.  The beginning of another.

On the first day of the new year, Anna and I awoke before dawn and took Poe’s remains to Bolinas.  We drove through the Sonoma and Marin darkness, past the unseen dairy and cattle hills, toward and eventually into the San Andreas fault zone.  As the sky lightened we dropped into the narrow crack that separates the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate and we crossed over to that new continent that moment by moment is shedding itself northward and away from our world.

We left Poe at the maritime shrine on the main street along with a photograph of his younger self.  Afterwards we ran on the rocky beach against the roar of the receding surf, watching the flyovers of the resident ravens and hawks.

We left Bolinas later that morning.  Driving out of town, I looked to my right.  An open meadow.  And across stretched a line of 22 fenceposts.  And on each sat a solitary raven, all warily eyeing the world.  Eyeing perhaps even our own departure.

Ravens in Bolinas

The First Feeding

20111222-124051.jpgThe turkey vultures have come to feast.

It took three days. But they’re here now in full force. And it’s been quite the party. They circle low and Mango loves chasing them. Even the horse down in the corral down the way became excited. Our neighbor came over and was wondering what had gotten under his skin – he was prancing and snorting, his tail held high. The vultures, however, had been circling and feeding for much of the morning. In addition to the impression of their tremendous mass, what feelings do they incite in other species? The horse was clearly unnerved.

What other conjecture do the birds summon?

  1. They are patient, keen observers. The splayed open body of the raccoon rested on the roof of the chicken house for two days before I noticed the first flyover. It was near dusk and two vultures flew slowly over the chicken house, circled once and continued on their way. They waited another two days before they began to work the body. I wonder how much they observed before they decided it was safe to eat? And do they use the close flyovers to test the animal to see if it’s still alive? Living creatures tend to run and bolt at the flyovers.
  2. They have at least some semblance of cognition and work their food. They didn’t feed on the roof. Instead one of the birds lifted the raccoon corpse off the roof and moved it 7 feet to a spot on the ground where they could easily circle and rest while picking at the flesh. They ate the first side of the raccoon on the first evening. The next morning they rotated his body a full 180 degrees to more easily get at his other side. Later I moved the remains and hanging entrails to the tree outside our house. Within hours they had removed the body from the tree and once again were working it on the ground just outside our dining room window. Do they have a set routine in how they will dismember and eat an animal?
  3. They may be highly social animals that work collaboratively. So far I’ve seen a primary pair that are sometimes accompanied by a third. Only one bird eats at a time. The other two either perch in the tree, on the backs of the garden furniture, or sit on the ground. In all instances they face outward toward the open meadow, watching it seems for any advancing threats. This morning when the neighbors pit approached from the meadow, the feeding raven stopped and joined the other two gazing outward. As the pit advanced, the birds slowly took flight. Two of the birds seemed to have disappeared for the day, while one remained in the tree. When my friend Danny walked outside, the bird descended from the tree and circled the carrion raccoon as if protecting it. Was the bird guarding the food? Or was it taking flight in self-defense? How do they communicate? How are responsibilities divided among the group? Is their a pecking hierarchy?
  4. They may have an acute sense of hearing. I was watching the birds with binoculars from our dining room window. At some point my cellphone sitting on the far side of the room in the kitchen chirped when an email came in. The turkey vulture outside and 10 feet from the house started and looked up in my direction. I know for certain that I would not have been able to hear the phone from outside the house. How to test their audial and visual acuity?
  5. They can quickly discern friend from foe and react accordingly. The first few times I walked outside in their presence they were startled and flew away. They watched, however, when I retrieved the raccoon and relocated it. And they also watched a couple times as I walked in and out of the house without bothering them. It only took a couple passes before they became accustomed to my presence and ignored me. Mango with all his bark and scampering on the other hand, is another story.
  6. Their necks and beaks may have adapted to small prey. Watching the vulture pick flesh with it’s beak, I thought of the vultures on the Mara. The birds there have long extensible necks that they thrust deep into the chest cavities of the wildebeest, elephants, or whatever other megafauna they feed on. North America hasn’t had megafauna for at least 15,000 years and nothing on the scale of what was in Africa. Did different carrion birds evolve different beak and neck structures that would allow them to feed on different kinds of animals? Have carrion birds evolved different strategies for dismembering corpses? I would imagine that an adult vulture has a far keener understanding of raccoon anatomy than I do. They’ve undoubtedly feasted on dozens of roadkill.

There you have it. Twenty minutes of observation and six questions.

And I haven’t even planted the garden bulbs. Or assembled the apiary.

 

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The Host and the Kill

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Time to get back with the program.

I found him in the morning while walking Mango. He lay on the side of the road at the other end of the 40 acres, his body fully intact. His chest cavity still had a trace of warmth, though rigor mortis had started to set in. Without any real clear intent, I picked him up, much to the chagrin of a waiting turkey vulture that immediately took flight.

I thought he was beautiful. He was heavy, heavier than one might think. Carrying his dead body, he felt something like a small dog. The pelt was thick, and the tail less pliable than it looks. His teeth and claws are predatory, ready to sink into any small vole – or wounded raven, perhaps – that he might happen across.

It all led to the basic question that ultimately faces everything: how best to send him on?

I could bury him, though that seemed respectful only in our world in which we seek to hide the look and stink of death. A waste of a perfectly good carcass, as Kerry Hardy would put it. I could gut him and do something with the luscious pelt, but I felt his native form was too beautiful to render into ornamentation. I could only screw it up. Kerry suggested eating him. Anna, of course, was worried about hydrophobia.

It took a good day for the answer to present itself.

This morning I drew a knife neatly down the middle of his chest and peeled back the pelt revealing the rose bloom of his chest. Lacking animus, his body now existed nearly exclusively as matter. But not quite. His matter still contains resident within a potency. We call it vitality. Enough that other creatures may seek to take it and draw it into their own.

We call this eating. On one side of the divide: sacrifice. On the other, rendered by consumption, it becomes the sacrament and the eater the sanctified.

Isn’t that ultimately what it meant in the transformation of the Host?

I took the body of that poor coon and splayed it on the roof of the old chicken barn out beyond our house. It’s within clear line of sight of our deck and bedroom windows. In a few days it will begin to stink.

If I’m lucky, the neighboring creatures will be hungry enough to overcome the fear of this place and of us. You all are welcome here I say to them. To the ravens. To the crows and vultures. To all the scavengers. I want them to come to this home and feed.

It really is time for me to get on with it. We have a wonderful home. And I’m back in it.

Here’s the invite. If you’re wild, I’ll feed you raccoon.

For the rest of you, I have a table to build. And things to grow. And kill. And render. It will be beautiful and delicious.

Come. You’re all welcome. It’s time to sate the hunger.

 

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Mo was our cat, and at the last minute as Anna was leaving Hopi, he leapt out of the car.  Anna was tired, expectant and preoccupied.  She wanted to get that cat, but it wasn’t her priority and in the end she didn’t have it in her.  She was thinking of other things.  She camped by the culverts for a full six hours trying to lure him, but when all was said and done,  it was all she could give and so she got on her way.

The book always made me so sad when I was little. To think of the little girl marooned all alone by herself on that island.  Left to raise herself into an uncertain future.  Even then I wanted to reach out to her.  I wanted her to be safe.

Some would say it’s stupid to travel halfway across the country to rescue a scared and bewildered animal.  But such as it was.  Someone, someone in this wide world has to do it.  Otherwise, what really are we here for?

So I climbed into the car and drove 15 hours straight back to Arizona.  I spent 30 hours up at Hopi.  I found the life that we had built there completely dismembered and gone.   The ramada had been ripped to the ground, the gardens dug up, the fencing tore down.  There was nothing left of our life there.

I spent the weekend combing that empty neighborhood for the cat.  I crawled through mud and across tumbleweeds, caking my chest in bull heads, peering through both ends of filthy culverts.  I called out again and again for a white kitten.

And in the while, I learned a little about animal ways.  How when they get scared they hide and they dig in for dear life.  How we have favorite spots and they nurture us and give us comfort.  I found the culvert ends where he crouched in the soft mud leaving hieroglyphs of paw prints.  And where he would eat, and the puddles from which he would lap his water.  I found two dead birds at the stoop of Pearish’s porch.  He was still hunting, and he wanted to please, he wanted to remain connected with humans, with us, and show he was still present.

He was independent and well good enough to fend for himself.  Most creatures do.  For those of us still standing, it’s what’s allowed us to survive for near forever.

But he was so scared.  Too scared to even come out and face me and an uncertain future.  Too scared of retribution and fear of what may happen.

In the end we were saved by a Hopi security man.  He had spent weeks watching him on the hospital security cameras.  His watchful eyes are what saved us.

He was the one who saw him and alerted me to the fenced parking lot where Mo was sequestered.

I climbed the fence with a can of sardines.  Again and again he bolted from me.  So I lay on the hot pavement and I spoke to him.

I was so proud of him, I said.  He had survived for all this time nearly all on his own.  He was a mighty animal, fierce and independent, and smart enough to live.  But there were some things he did not know, I told him.  Winter was coming.  And his family was never coming back.  And if he stayed here, if he was too afraid to join us, then here he would die.

It was a long way to our new home.  I told him that it would not be easy.  That this journey would feel to him excruciating and endlessly long, but that Mango the dog and the other cats and the chickens and all of us had already made it.  It was just he alone that had stayed here.  And our life here was no more.  Most people had already left and decamped for other places.  The birds themselves would soon be flown, and the mice that he hunted and fed on would soon be burrowed deep in the ground.  Come to me.  Please, I asked.  Please.  Trust me.  It will all be okay.  It will all be alright.

He walked and nuzzled against my arm.  And I grabbed him.  Loving him so much I gripped him to my chest, and carried him in a near death lock strong enough to defy the sink of his teeth and his clawing scratches.

The End

A raven was born, and wounded, and lived for a short time in this world.

He was taken at night by an animal.  He could offer no defense.  I knew straightaway where to go.  I found his severed head at the base of towering redwood tree.

Poe, I write this to you.

I am so sorry I was the cause of your destruction.  You believed in me and I kept screwing it up.  You did your best and I was the one who pulled the football away.

I don’t know where a raven’s spirit goes when it dies.  But I want you to find it within you a way to forgive. But forgiveness may only be in the province of humans, an unnecessary convention unsuited to the ways of birds.   I can listen for you and your own.  I can assign meaning.  It’s only an assignation, but it’s all I know how to do.

And in the end, what all do you care for my mortal shit?  You’re birds.  You do  your justice and sup on the departed.

Final Days

Our furniture arrived in the middle of September.  Two movers hefted and shoved and carried on their backs more possessions than any being should have to bear.  They got it all in our house.  I brought Poe home that night from Occidental.  His eye was blind, his feathers falling out, he refused to preen or care for himself.  He spent the night inside, afraid to leave his courier cage.  In the morning he emerged and shit all over our dining room table.

He stayed with me while I unpacked boxes.  I spread packing paper across the floor and he receded into it.  Unable to see, he squawked and panicked whenever I approached him.  He could no longer perch, so he sat on the papered floor.

In the day I set him up outside on the lawn and he caught sun.  I fed him apples and cheese, that he no longer touched.  In the evening, he hopped onto the porch and walked inside.  The house was in chaos, boxes and junk everywhere.  I felt sick to my stomach and so did he.  His watery shit ran across the floor.  His sounds were few, just feeble cries.

I apologized, but apologies don’t matter a whit.  I couldn’t make it any better.  I told him if he could meet me half way, I could help him.  But I couldn’t do anything if didn’t want to make it better.  It was his choice, I told him.  And if it was too much to bear, he could end it.

All he felt from me was chaos and fear and anger.  And in the end, perhaps it only left him bewildered.

Anna drove a night and a day to get to us.  She had the chickens and dog and two of our cats loaded in with her, and I released them all hoping Poe would find them familiar friends and be happy for company.  He hopped away and buried his body and head against the rocks.

I knew Anna didn’t want him in the house.  So that night I set him on his perch outside.  I gave him a sampling of meat and cantaloupe and water.

I told him everything would be alright. And that’s how I left him.

Talk to the Animals

Her name was Ariana Strozzi.  And she ran a place called Skyhorse Ranch.

I’d been given her name by someone in the coffee shop.  She worked with animals, I was told.  She knew a lot about birds.

A few days after returning to town, I fetched Poe from Occidental.  Penny was right.  He looked to be a complete mess, missing feathers, agitated, afraid to come near me.  I know of someone who maybe can help you, I told him.

That day, I took Poe to Valley Ford. We descended into that overcast channel west of Petaluma that leads on to the ocean. We drove up to Skyhorse ranch, a horse farm high on the hill overlooking the barren valley.  I pulled past the horse corrals to the house.  Ariana welcomed me at the door.  She appeared collected and thoughtful.  She invited Poe and I into her house and allowed me to take him from the carrier.

Ariana led workshops on interspecies communication, primarily with horses.  Animals were her thing.  They operate on the level of feeling and to be with them we need to quiet the noise inside ourselves.  She wasn’t part of the rehabilitation community and was a renegade of sorts.  On her own she worked with a whole range of predatory birds.  Hawks, peregrines, owls.  And ravens.

Ariana had done her graduate work at UC Davis.  While there, she had developed a system for wing rehabilitation using intensive physical therapy wedded to bird instinct. When she finished, she had been recruited to help with condor reintroduction on the North Rim. Her job would have been to prevent the birds from human imprinting.

Ariana felt that the ravens see everything and they know in deep way what we’re about.  She told me a story.  A while ago, her marriage was falling apart, she told me, and she didn’t want to admit it.  She was up at the ranch at the time, and the birds would come to her, they would follow her where she went and caw incessently.  Until one afternoon in a rage she stood outside her barn and called out what she had known all along and and she shouted and screamed to the birds and the world and the birds were at last silent.

I sat in the living room with her and Poe.  He sat on her table and she watched him, unconcerned as he shit over her living room floor.  She fed him meal worms. She was concerned about his thinness and his diet.  He needed field mice and insects, she said.  He sat calmly in her presence and preened.  She confidently took Poe by the legs and body and thrust him through diving motions again and again.

It wasn’t good, she said.  His right wing was damaged and fused shut.  His left wing seemed paralytic also, and his left foot wouldn’t grip properly.  In the diving motion he failed to respond instinctively by thrusting out his wing.

I doubt he will ever fly again, she said.

And if I take him to a wildlife refuge? I asked.

They’ll put him down, she said.

He can’t be a raven.  But can he live a life, a full life? I asked.

She smiled.  He can, she said.  Absolutely.  It’s clear that you have a special bond, she said.  You know one another and he trusts your presence.  He can be a happy member of your family.  He craves social interaction.  You can integrate him into your family.  When you eat, he can sit with you at the table.  He can be with you as you go about your day.  Stimulate him, pay attention, work with him and his life can be as full as any.

I thanked her.

I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to do this thing we call life, diminished though it may be.